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Choosing the best (free) forum software solution for your website

Forum software, contrary to popular belief, does not have to cost several hundred dollars to be a complete solution. This forum, for example, does not use paid forum software. While very large forums may benefit from paid solutions such as Xenforo, vBulliten, or IP.Board, it certainly isn't mandatory to use paid software to build a successful forum. In this post, we'll compare the most popular free forum software solutions and give you a comprehensive list of pros and cons to each.

The three main contenders for free forum software are phpBB, myBB, and SMF. Minor contenders include solutions such as Drupal forum or FluxBB/punBB. This guide will focus on comparing the giants of free forum software: phpBB, SMF, and MyBB.


A very large portion of the internet's forums are powered by phpBB. phpBB is often considered a good choice for people who need a simple forum that works. It is also very user friendly on its front-end user interface. In addition, its server overhead is generally very low, making it a good choice for users with limited server resources.

The overall interface of the ACP (admin control panel) is very nice as well, but some things about managing your forum can be a bit confusing. For new users, creating and setting up boards with the correct permissions, installing mods, etc... can be a bit overwhelming. phpBB also has a general lack of advanced features beyond what's available in the core package, due to its limiting plugin system.

* Huge community of users
* User friendly
* Nice default theme
* Very solid package for a simple forum

* Very poor plugin system
* Lack of advanced plugins with good compatibility
* Confusing board permissions


SMF is another one of the giants of free forum software. It is well known for being able to handle very large forums without trouble. It also has many very good, powerful plugins available. For this reason, SMF is a popular choice for commercial forums that need advanced features such as downloads systems, advanced portal software, blog systems, subscription systems, premium account capabilities integrated with paypal, etc...

SMF is also a good choice for smaller websites. Its huge user community and active development makes it a good choice for many forum admins, especially with complex needs. Its administration interface is a bit disappointing, however. When I personally started using SMF, I found it difficult to find what I was looking for. Thankfully, the admin panel has two display modes. The alternative, expanded mode is much nicer, making it easier to find your way around basic administration settings.

SMF also does not have a good template system, which is a disappointment for many advanced users. For that reason, many modifications can be a little confusing, and FTP is often required for a very simple template modification. The large user base of plugins makes up for it, however.

* Huge community of users
* Very powerful plugin base
* Active development
* Ability to handle very large forums
* Very good portal plugins available

* Confusing administration interface
* Poor template system


MyBB was once an outcast in the world of free forum software. Over the past few years, it has quickly become a user favorite, however. It is very difficult to beat MyBB in terms of user friendliness, and the installation of plugins is almost always very easy and free of trouble. MyBB is a very stable package that is very good for those new to using forum software, as all of the core features are very easy to find and use. MyBB also has many advanced features available in a core installation, with many great plugins available.

The plugin base and community of users is not nearly as large as that of SMF, but myBB's user base is growing rapidly. While the possibilities available through plugins aren't quite as extensive as SMF, myBB is still a great choice for users who need a simple solution for forum software that is complete, easy to use, and stable.

* Very easy to use and set up.
* Very stable and complete package
* Very easy installation of plugins
* Simple and user-friendly interface

* Plugin and user community is not as large as that of SMF
* Poor default theme

what's right for your community?

With these three forum software options all being plausible options for your community, deciding between them is often a difficult task. In many cases it simply comes down to a matter of personal taste. It's usually worth installing all three and deciding which one works best for your needs from there. However, depending on the type of community you are trying to create, we can make a few recommendations from our experience.

SMF is usually the best option for large and/or commercial websites, due to the giant user base and large database of plugins. It contains many of the features you'll need to create a large, commercial website either out of the box or via a plugin. It is known to be able to handle very large forums without having performance problems as a result, making it a good choice for large forums.

MyBB is a great choice for small to medium size forums, but it can handle large forums as well. Being much easier to use than SMF, it allows you to focus firsthand on what matters most: your community. MyBB has a reputation for stability and quality, making it a great choice for forum admins who want great forum software packed with features without having to deal with the extra difficulty in setting up an SMF forum.

phpBB works for forums of all sorts and sizes, but is usually at its best for forums with simple needs. Due to its lack of a good plugin system, it can be limiting to use it for advanced, commercial websites. Its stability, user friendliness, and simplicity is hard to beat for forums with simple needs, however. It is often a great choice for websites that simply need a forum software solution that is solid and works well out of the box.

Let us know if you have any additional thoughts or points of comparison! - Our next project...
I'd generally agree with this list. Having used SMF and MyBB for my own site, I lean to liking SMF more. Although the template/styles system is ...meh... from a user perspective is it a lot less bloated than MyBB. I find all the options on the MyBB user setting page(s) to be a little too cluttered with several options that just don't make sense having at all.
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I'm torn between SMF and myBB as my favorite... both are my favorite Tongue
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I would have to agree. I'm really pretty torn as far as which one is better, and I think it often comes down to specific needs and preference. Both are certainly great options. - Our next project...
For those who remember my struggles with a to-not-be-named-here SMF host, well they've gone and died again. This time even the support network is gone - everything. So they either misconfigured something or closed.
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What now? Did they forget to pay their bill? Tongue

I honestly wouldn't be surprised if they had closed down. If I were to grade their service, I'd give them a D-, for obvious reasons. - Our next project...
I personally think they did close... but that might just be what I would like to think Tongue
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Especially since head admin/owner left and was replaced. Before this recent downtime they said they were moving servers. Maybe that's it, but I wouldn't be surprised if they closed. I'd wouldn't even give them a D-, I'd say F. Even when they did work they were highly restrictive. You couldn't edit the CSS of your theme, let alone the templates!
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It's not surprising that they didn't give the ability to edit templates, since SMF doesn't really have a true template system. (The template files are, in reality, just a bunch of PHP files full of functions).

Surely they could have added the ability to edit CSS though. Did they even package any mods? - Our next project...
I don't remember on the mods side. I don't think they did, aside from the ones that come with SMF and SimplePortal. Tongue
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At least they packaged simpleportal... better than nothing. Tongue

Was simpleportal any good? I use ADK portal here, and if I were to redesign the site now, I think I'd probably use Simpleportal instead. I don't want to install it now since I have to install everything manually, which means downtime while I make the file edits. - Our next project...
It was pretty good. It was, as the name implies, simple to use. Simple to add content block, etc. I liked it for sure. I'd use it again, that or TinyPortal.
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Maybe I'll get it installed here sometime. For now, ADK portal works though. Plus changing it now would mean a few hours of downtime since the package manager doesn't work on this server. Tongue - Our next project...
I remember having to do that for the very first file exchange I ran, when it used an SMF forum... was not a fun time.
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ADK downloads is alright, but if you have a short description for the upload, it has a strange CSS glitch that causes the image to overlap some DIVs and strange stuff like that. I almost made use of a modified version (free of glitches) of the ADK downloads module here, but honestly we have no use for it at this point. Tongue - Our next project...
Yes, I remember that. I found that a little annoying, and it was before I knew much of anything in CSS/html, so I wouldn't have been able to fix it. There isn't much like that for SMF, unfortunately. But yea, Makestation doesn't need it yet, I don't think. Maybe in the future.
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Once we get to have a giant community, I'd like to launch a full project hosting system to empower new software developers. Right now we don't need it, but I'd like to get to that point. A downloads system would be helpful for that sort of thing down the road. Big Grin - Our next project...

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